Returning veterans swell ranks of US entrepreneurs

Brad Dorsey

4 min read ·


HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — As a truck driver for the U.S. military in wartime Iraq, Ed Young racked up 7,000 miles, facing a constant threat of attack that left him struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.

Four years later, he is driving long hauls again, but now in the U.S. as one of a growing number of veterans turning entrepreneur. The Navy veteran who had seen his post-war life spiraling out of control says his Connecticut-based car transportation business has helped to put him on the road to recovery.

Young received training to run his enterprise through a program for disabled veterans at the University of Connecticut, one of many efforts emerging nationwide to help returning service members start small businesses.

"The biggest thing I got out of it was, no matter what, don't give up on your idea," said Young, 26. "Basically it's like in the military. Just accomplish the mission. That is your job, to accomplish your mission, no matter what."

More than 200,000 people are discharged from the U.S. military each year, and advocates say they often possess qualities that make good entrepreneurs: resourcefulness, a taste for risk-taking and a can-do attitude. Nonprofit groups, state governments and U.S. agencies are all providing business training aimed at giving them new purpose and easing their transition to civilian life.

Already, veterans are well-represented in the entrepreneurial ranks. Nearly one in 10 small businesses are veteran-owned, and retired service members are at least 45 percent more likely than those without active-duty military experience to be self-employed, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. As troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, some see an opportunity not only to help them find work, but for veteran entrepreneurs to provide a jolt to the U.S. economy.

"We think this is an opportunity where we're going to have a lot of veterans who have the right skills to be entrepreneurs," said Rhett Jeppson, associate administrator for veterans' business development at the SBA. "We can help prepare them for the opportunities out there."

Unlike GIs who played a famed role in growing the U.S. economy after World War II, however, this generation is returning to the worst economic slump since the depression.

Young, who graduated last year from the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities at UConn, had to apply to 10 banks before landing a $24,000 loan to buy a truck and start his business, Black Knight Services. After completing more than $75,000 in sales in the first six months of the year, he said he is looking to buy more trucks, but for now he still operates out of his apartment in Milford, Conn., when not on the road.

"It has its ups and downs, but I love it 100 percent," he said. "Unfortunately, I really can't stand people that much. At least I'm just by myself and with my thoughts."

It's been a dramatic turnaround for Young, who began drinking heavily after returning from Iraq in 2009. He hit bottom when he was arrested in 2010 for threatening to hurt his two young children. It was during his jail time and his treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder that Young, who had developed a taste for entrepreneurship as a deejay in middle school, began to develop ideas for his own business.

Michael Zacchea, the executive director of the Connecticut bootcamp, said businesses like Young's that start during difficult financial times are more likely to succeed in the long run. Regardless of the veterans' career ambitions, Zacchea said, the program also aims to teach veterans to take charge of their civilian careers.

"It might be as simple as somebody starting a mom and pop shop," he said. "It's economic but it's also about social identity reconstruction. 'I used to be a warrior; now I'm an entrepreneur and I can feed myself.'"

The bootcamp program, funded with assistance from donors and foundations, began at Syracuse University in 2007 and has spread to seven other schools. The students selected from around the country receive 10 days of intensive training and, for the future, a network of close advisers.

The SBA, which supported loans worth more than $1.5 billion to veteran business owners last year, is also beginning to take training directly to military bases. Under a program called Operation Boots to Business, introductory entrepreneurship classes will be given at bases around the country starting over the next year — part of a larger effort called for by President Barack Obama to assist veterans' transition to the workforce.

Wherever possible, Jeppson said, the SBA also teams up with businesses and other groups for programs like the entrepreneurship boot camp.

"The interest is huge. A lot of people are looking for partners to do things like this," he said.

Veteran-owned businesses can receive priority for some federal contracts, and local governments are developing programs of their own to promote entrepreneurship. Illinois, for example, passed a law this year that sets a goal of 3 percent of every state contract to go to small businesses owned by veterans.

States are coming to see small business as an ideal outlet for returning veterans who are generally highly confident and independent, Connecticut Veterans Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz said.

"They find when they get into a situation that they are working for someone else, the pace is not fast enough," she said. "I think that's why entrepreneurship efforts are paying off across the country."

This story is the latest installment in a joint initiative by The Associated Press and Associated Press Media Editors taking a closer look at this latest generation of war veterans as they return to civilian life, and the effect this is having on them, their families and American society.

Brad Dorsey